Modern Critics’ Assessment of Pip in the Dual Role of the Narrator & Protagonist

Written by Kelsey Teglash and co-written by Rachel Campbell

Group members: Kelsey Teglash, Rachel Campbell, Peter Cala, John Panus, and Nikkel Gohel

David Parossiens essay “’If You Knew all My Story’… The Rhetoric of Pip’s Tale” discusses how Dickens cleverly uses Pip’s first person narration to tell his story with a perspective that is “detached and generally distanced from the matter he tells”. As both the novel’s protagonist and narrator Pip takes on the dual responsibility of moving the plot forward through his actions as well as shaping the perception of the reader through his narration. With this in mind, Pip can be seen as two separate entities; character Pip who the reader can see react to the events surrounding him, and narrator Pip who reflects upon these events with perspective and a greater sense of maturity. Parossiens argues that the skill of Dickens in Great Expectations is in his ability to easily move from one perspective to another and bring the periods of the characters together in order to provide the reader with a more comprehensive outlook. The shadow of the narrating Pip can easily be seen throughout the entire book, but is seen for the first time in Chapter 4 on Christmas day when Pip and Joe are on their way to church. Language like ‘vicariously’, ‘Sunday penitentials’’, and ‘reformatory’, are terms and concepts far beyond that of a six year old, particularly one that cannot properly pronounce his full name. The older, narrating Pip uses this language to infuse the passage with a sense of greater insight.

In her essay “Early Stream-of-Consciousness Writing: Great Expectations” Ann B. Dobie adds support to Parossiens argument by noting the difference between surrealist writing and stream-of-consciousness writing. She asserts that Great Expectations should be viewed as a stream-of-consciousness novel rather than a surrealistic novel. Going on to explain that as a memoir the older Pip is doing all at once, it accurately fits the template of the stream-of-consciousness writer. This is one who attempts to re-create the subconscious mental state of the character whereas the surrealists use automatic writing to obtain the suggestions of the subconscious mental states (Dobie 407). The shadowing narrator reflects on his past with a different viewpoint than his younger self because he was awakened to the reality of the world. Dobie argues that “For a child there is no clean-cut separation between his imagination and his surroundings. Instead, there is a fusion of the two which is comparable to the fusion by the artist of the individual and the world around him, the internal and the external. Thus there is an inevitable blending of the two in an individual consciousness” (Dobie 408). This easily explains the largest contrast between character and narrator Pip in the beginning of the novel. Six year old Pip is a developing character who is constantly being “molded and remolded” by the events and people in his life (Dobie 409). Reading the events of younger Pips life and his “molding” while the older Pip provides insight into the lasting effect of these events invites the reader into his world completely. However, as a narrator we are only seeing Pip’s world from his perspective. Unlike in Bleak House, the narration is only provided by the elderly Pip who is recalling decades of information in one retelling.

A different perspective is taken when our group came across  Rupert Christiansen’s article “What are we Meant to Think of Pip?” While not completely negating Parossiens and Dobie’s argument he mentions that while Pip seems to be a reliable narrator he leaves a lot out. Christiansen notes that the critical information about why he is telling his story his circumstances after with Estella in his mid-30s is absent. In Chapter 14 he refers to his present as ‘occasions in my later life” leaving the reader to constantly question the true effect of the conclusion of his days as young Pip the character.

Christiansen then goes on to examine Pip the narrator from an outside perspective in an attempt to do away with the bias of the first person point-of-view.  He argues that Pip the narrator is being unnecessarily harsh and critical of his former self without any real reason.  When Pip receives his “great expectations” and desires to leave the forge and become part of a higher class of society, this, the critic argues, is the natural reaction “…anyone in his position would have done when offered a golden opportunity to escape the humdrum, and his subsequent embarrassment and discomfort at Joe’s awkward manners is entirely natural”.  Even Pip’s discovery that Magwitch is (Don’t look Peter) the benefactor and his initial disgust and dread of this new discovery that he later beats himself up for is what would be expected of anyone else in the same situation.  Magwitch is a convict–possibly a very dangerous one–who scared the crap out of Pip when he was a little boy in the graveyard.  It is only logical, the critic contends, for Pip to have had the reaction he did.  Thus, the older Pip’s commentary on his younger self is overly self-deprecating, and Christiansen leaves us with a question to contemplate: “Pip seems to think everything is his fault, but what does he actually have to be ashamed about?”

Potential Ideas for an Interpretive Question:

  • What does the adult Pip believe he has reason to be ashamed of and how does that compare to what the young Pip was ashamed of as a child?
    • Is older Pip being too hard on himself as the last critic argues?
    • Is there validity to young Pip’s shame in older Pip’s eyes?

Works Cited

Christiansen, Rupert. “Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations.” ‘Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations’ N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Dec. 2014.

Dobie, Ann B. “Early Stream-of-Consciousness Writing: Great Expectations.”Nineteenth-Century Fiction 25.4 (1971): 405-16. Web.

Paroissien, David. “‘if You Knew all My Story…’: The Rhetoric of Pip’s Tale.” The Dickensian 106.482 (2010): 227,234,196.ProQuest. Web.

6 thoughts on “Modern Critics’ Assessment of Pip in the Dual Role of the Narrator & Protagonist

  1. Profile photo of Cassandra BalliniCassandra Ballini

    Group 4

    While we agree with Rupert Christiansen’s assessment of Pip as a highly self-critical character and narrator, we disagree that such behavior is entirely unjustified, given the way he acted throughout the novel. The basic plot revolves around his elevation from a country bumpkin to a gentleman, only to lose the high status he craved and being forced to work his way back up to a semi-respectable position. During his initial transition from “poor” to “rich,” Pip’s attitude towards his family and place of origin–especially in the case of Joe–are extremely rude and critical; in short, Pip comes off as a snob. It is not unreasonable to say that Pip’s fall from grace was not undeserved, nor is it unreasonable to say that this was a satisfying plot twist from the perspective of the reader.

    Considering how casually Pip treated his newfound privilege, as well as his foolishly blind infatuation with Estella, it can be difficult for readers to sympathize with him. the loss of his fortune not only triggered a badly needed attitude adjustment, it also gave him a chance to redeem himself in the eyes of the reader. By the time the plotline catches up to his present day, Pip’s perception of himself is extremely harsh, and not without good reason. After disregarding his loved ones (especially Joe, who was essentially Pip’s friend and father figure all in one) in favor of the snobbish Estella and Miss Havisham, Pip has a lot to make up for.

    To be fair, however, we must point out that Pip is reflecting on his childhood decisions as an adult, and some of his harsh judgements of his younger self are unwarranted. For example, when Pip stole bread from his sister’s home to feed Magwitch in the early pages of the novel, he felt extremely guilty about this petty theft despite his ever-present fear for his life. Given the choice between stealing some bread (which was originally supposed to be part of his dinner anyway) and being gruesomely killed by a mysterious stranger, Pip’s decision was very much justifiable. Yet he never once stops to consider this as an adult. It is important to note that Pip is recounting this episode as an adult and, even with the benefit of hindsight along with a mature perspective of the world, he doesn’t give himself any credit for acting out of self-preservation. Though Pip’s self-criticism was, overall, justified given his snooty behavior for much of the novel, he can be unnecessarily critical of the decisions he made as a child in the name of survival.

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  2. Profile photo of Kristen DruseKristen Druse

    Group 5

    The critic Parossiens cited by Group 6 claims that the use of the narrator viewing himself allows for the expansion of perspective in the novel as a whole. We agree with this interpretation as old Pip is clearly able to grasp and reflect more about his young self through the lens of passed time. Young Pip, or Pip in the context of the novel, is mainly ashamed of his poverty and the fact that Magwitch is his benefactor, as he holds the man in great contempt. Old Pip, in contrast, is ashamed of the shortsightedness that he realizes, in retrospect, plagued his youth.

    Pip grew up in a relatively sheltered environment, and for a decent period of his childhood had no real exposure to the disdain that can accompany wealth (which is a criticism that frequently appears in Dickens’ novels). However, when Pip meets Estella, in the face of her criticism, he discovers what inferiority feels like: “I had never thought of being ashamed of my hands before; but I began to consider them a very indifferent pair. Her contempt for me was so strong, that it became infectious, and I caught it” (Dickens 52). Pip becomes ashamed of the “roughness” that indicates to people like Estella that he does not come from a more “honorable” sector of society, and this shame follows him as he grows up and continues to interact with people from a large range of social classes.

    Pip also feels shame when he discovers that Magwitch is his benefactor and the reason that he has been able to rise from poverty: “The abhorrence in which I held the man, the dread I had of him, the repugnance with which I shrank from him, could not have been exceeded it he had been some terrible beast” (Dickens 241). Although Magwitch behaves in an incredibly selfless manner and quite literally devotes his life to furthering Pip’s station in life and improving his future, Pip still looks at Magwitch with disgust and repulsion. Although Magwitch is a far from flawless character, it is more than apparent to readers of Great Expectations that Magwitch deserves to be looked at with open-minded consideration and respect.

    As the novel progresses, and Pip develops more of a sense of moral right and wrong, it becomes apparent that the older Pip, or the narrator, views his past perspectives with shame (i.e. he feels shameful about his past shame, so try saying that three times fast). Old Pip realizes that the disdain with which he viewed people and his efforts to alienate those he viewed as inferior reflected negatively on the course of his life. For example, he greatly regrets the way he treated Joe, who although couldn’t exactly be called “the brightest bulb in the drawer,” certainly cared for Pip deeply. His self-centered choices of his youth are obviously something that plague old Pip, and it is very apparent that he regrets distancing himself from those who truly cared for him, such as Magwitch. The time that Pip has experienced since the events that occurred in the novel gave him considerable perspective about the impulsiveness of his youthful self.

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  3. Profile photo of McKennaMillerMcKennaMiller

    Group 3

    Looking back, what older Pip was most ashamed about was the fact that he was feeling shame when he was a child. This is especially true when he is confronted with anything that reminds him of his past and his poor upbringing. The cycle of shame following shame haunts him well into his adult years, even though it stemmed from when he was just a child.

    Older Pip believes that he has to be ashamed of his younger self for giving into the feeling of shame, and that he should never have allowed Estella to get to him with her dismissive and cruel treatment. When he was young, Pip’s shame revolved around his denial of his roots and his treatment of Joe in London. He let Estella get to him and allowed his embarrassment over his poor background to take over and dictate his treatment of Joe when the man came to visit him in London. Older Pip is much too harsh on his younger self. It’s not as if his younger self. who was really only a child, could have helped how he felt.

    Growing up, he only had Joe as a proper role model, but he was far too meek to show Pip much of anything. If he had had stronger role models, he would have silenced Estella early into her criticism, but young Pip was as soft-spoken as Joe in that sense and allowed Estella to continue with her diatribe. To older Pip, young Pip’s shame seems valid, but that is putting far too much pressure on too young of a child, and blaming himself for control over emotions that he could not have had. Pip’s overly harsh treatment of himself further perpetuated his shame, and in the end, greatly and negatively affected his character.

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  4. Profile photo of Audrey BuechelAudrey Buechel

    Group 1

    Group 1 agrees with Christiansen in that, as an older adult narrator, Pip is perhaps being a bit too critical of himself in his childhood years and is indeed ashamed of his own sense of shame that he harboured within himself as a young boy in matters pertaining to his lower socioeconomic status. He is hard on his younger self, that is quite evident, but in large part we think that that is due to the regret he feels later in his life as a result of the aspirations he chooses to set his sights on as a child, blinding him to all else that does not pertain to the “great expectations” he has for his future self and life. After meeting Estella and Miss Havisham for the first time, his newfound awareness of social class and the frustrations and shame he feels as a result of his first encounter with those of the upper class along with his respective position in relation to them, is pardonable. Can you really judge yourself or a child all that harshly for having a crush on a girl as a young boy, or getting wrapped up in a more ideal lifestyle? Children are impressionable, especially when they are trying to come to terms with their own identity and the adult Pip appears to overlook this minor, but important detail. An excerpt we believe exemplifies such a reflection is on page 207 of Great Expectations:
    “As I had grown accustomed to my expectations, I had insensibly begun to notice their effect upon myself and those around me. Their influence on my own character I disguised from my recognition as much as possible, but I knew very well that it was not all good. I lived in a state of chronic uneasiness respecting my behavior to Joe. My conscience was not by any means comfortable about Biddy. When I woke up in the night,—like Camilla,—I used to think, with a weariness on my spirits, that I should have been happier and better if I had never seen Miss Havisham’s face, and had risen to manhood content to be partners with Joe in the honest old forge. Many a time of an evening, when I sat alone looking at the fire, I thought, after all there was no fire like the forge fire and the kitchen fire at home. Yet Estella was so inseparable from all my restlessness and disquiet of mind, that I really fell into confusion as to the limits of my own part in its production” (Dickens, 207).
    While the younger Pip is correct in that he treated Joe unfairly, seeing as he was one of the only adult figures in his life that genuinely looked after and cared for him, he shouldn’t continuously punish himself by feeling an unrelenting sense of shame and remorse for the rest of his life about the things he did, the feelings he had, or the way(s) he acted as a child. It doesn’t excuse his behavior, but it is a way to start looking at it as an issue that is more complex than just being either black or white. We’re never really held unaccountable for our actions, and I don’t think we should be– but wisdom and reflection does come with age, as Pip reveals to us at the end of the novel.

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  5. Profile photo of Hannah GlaserHannah Glaser

    The adult Pip is ashamed of his past self; he believes he should be ashamed that he once rejected his own identity, while young Pip is ashamed of his current self, believing himself to be inferior to those around him and guilty for his shortcomings.

    Pip’s shame both as a child and as an adult is a result of his interaction with members of higher classes, especially Estella and Ms. Havisham. Young Pip first expresses humiliation at his social standing and appearance after visiting Estella for the first time. He notices his rough hands and worn boots, and turns his disgust inwards, twisting and pulling his hair as a physical manifestation of this self-inflicted, painful shame. Estella is the catalyst that begins Pip’s quest to become a gentleman; and his subsequent fugue from his lower-class identity becomes the source of his shame as an adult.

    The second turning point for Pip occurs when he learns that Magwitch is his benefactor. When Pip first meets Magwitch, he believes him to be a representation of a life of poverty; he believes Magwitch is the lowest, most pitiable of humankind, a physical representation of the life he wants to escape. But when Pip discovers that he has spent his whole life running from the very source of his success, he feels as if he has betrayed his roots. Pip then rejects his long-held disgust for his past, and becomes ashamed that he had ever felt such contempt for his own home and identity. The now adult Pip is unable to forgive himself for his past impressionability, which shows that in some ways he really has not come so far from the boy he once was. Pip still believes that his child self is guilty, but this time he is guilty for his emotional shortcomings rather than his societal shortcomings.

    Pip’s inability to accept himself is his greatest flaw, and it drives him to be cruelly critical of his childhood self. Pip believes that he should be ashamed of his past self, but this shame is not justified. Pip is failing to recognize that there is substantial disparity between a young naïve boy and a middle-aged man. Adult Pip is able to reflect on his past self with greater understanding and full knowledge of the consequences of his past decisions. If Pip does not recognize that his judgment of a misguided child is unfair, then he is not only being too critical of himself, he is still making the same mistake he made as a child, blaming someone for their own misfortune.

    Group Members: Michael Adams, Hannah Glaser, Mike Stoianoff, Colin Peartree, and Kevin O’Connor

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  6. Profile photo of Nikkel GohelNikkel Gohel

    Group 6

    David Parossiens claims that Dickens’ use of the adult Pip as narrator serves to make him a more reliable and likeable character. The “searing honesty” with which the adult Pip evaluates his life, Parossiens argues, allows him to “[win] our sympathy, making us well disposed towards him.” This, however, doesn’t answer why the sense of guilt seen in the younger Pip often seems a bit overly excessive. In contrast, adult Pip appears much more logical in his evaluation of his past (and present) actions. It is (adult) Pip’s honest nature that allows him to rationally and earnestly evaluate his life. While a flat character may have reflected back on his life with the view that his guilt was either all justified or all unjustified, Pip’s nuances in opinion of his past-self reveal the extent and maturity of his growth.
    In reminiscing his past, the narrator Pip judges his actions in a myriad of ways. At times, he approves of the guilt and mistrust younger Pip felt of himself. In chapter 2, for instance, Pip claims “”I was in mortal terror of myself… I am afraid to think of what I might have done on requirement, in the secrecy of my terror.” There are other scenes, however, where the adult Pip is overly critical of his young self. One example is when Pip fights the pale young gentleman in Miss Havisham’s garden (chapter 11). The adult Pip wishes that his younger self had regarded himself “as a species of savage young wolf or other wild beast.” However, after the fight, Pip conducts himself like a true gentleman, asking the other boy if he needed help and sending him off with a “good afternoon.” Another example of Pip’s future regret is when Pip refuses to confess his theft to Joe. In hindsight, the adult Pip says “In a word, I was too cowardly to do what I knew what was right, as I had been too cowardly to avoid doing what I knew to be wrong.”
    During his recollections, Pip’s opinions of his past-self range from guilt, shame and disappointment to neutrality, and slight critique all the way to acceptance, pride or approval. Regardless of what his opinion of a past action is, his reasons are usually rational and justified. However, we should also consider the possibility that Pip’s guilty conscience may be an extreme and unusual case. For instance, when Pip asks Joe what a convict is, he doesn’t hear any of the words Joe says other than “Pip”. From early on in his life, Pip associates himself with criminality. In chapter 4, Pip notes how he was made to feel that his very existence is some sort of a crime for he says, “I was always treated as if I had insisted on being born in opposition to the dictates of reason, religion, and morality, and against the dissuading arguments of my best friends.” Soon after this self-reflection, when Mrs. Joe is entertaining her Christmas dinner guests, Pip becomes fearful when Mr. Pumblechook talks about the swine and points at him. This fear paralyzes Pip to the point of him being unable to even serve his own food.
    Some critics have analyzed in depth possible reasons for Pip’s deep sense of guilt. Rupert Christiansen, for instance, states that “Fear, guilt and conscience dominate Pip’s childhood”. He also argues that Freudian psychoanalysis would reveal his overactive superego to be largely due to the immense guilt he feels for his parents and sibling’s deaths. Blaming Pip’s rough upbringing and abusive sister, Christiansen believes that Pip’s shame for his home and himself contribute to his constant self-deprecation. Adding to Christiansen, Scholar John Lucas claims that it is Pip’s “desire to atone for past errors that leads him to identify error where none exists”. We notice that Pip looks on helplessly and “guiltily” when his behavior causes his sister to hurt Joe. When Pip’s “bolting” of his food is brought up, Mrs. Joe knocks Joe’s head against a wall, leading Pip to think of his conscience as a “dreadful thing” and one made worse by the “secret burden down the leg of his trousers.”

    Group members: Kelsey Teglash, Rachel Campbell, Peter Cala, John Panus, and Nikkel Gohel

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